What is the nature of modern warfare? Is the Clausewitzian definition and conception of warfare still relevant today?

Writing more than one hundred and seventy years ago, Clausewitz defined war as “a continuation of politics (Politik) by other means”, and “an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.”[1] In recent years, some scholars have argued that nuclear weaponry, transnational and non-traditional conflicts like counter-terrorism and counter-narcotrafficking, and the increased compartmentalization of the political and military leadership in modern societies have rendered obsolete Clausewitz’s definition of war as an act of policy, but I believe that this is due to an overly narrow interpretation of Clausewitz. As Echevarria pointed out, Clausewitz’s use of the term Politik did not only refer to an act of state policy to achieve a political aim. It also meant politics as an external state of affairs, the strengths and weaknesses provided to a state by its geo-political position, its resources, alliances and treaties, and as an ongoing process of internal interaction between a state’s key decision-making institutions and the personalities of its policy makers. More than that, Clausewitz used Politik as a historically causative force, providing an explanatory pattern or framework for coherently viewing war’s various manifestations over time.[2]

Beyond his definition, Clausewitz’s tripartite conception of war provides a useful framework to understand the changing and diverse nature of war. Clausewitz wrote that war is underpinned by three variable and inter-related forces or tendencies: emotion, chance and politics. These forces in turn correspond to three representative bodies: the character and disposition of the populace, the skill and prowess of the military, and the wisdom and intelligence of the government.[3]

Despite the revolutionary advances in technology encapsulated in what is known within the American military community as the Revolution of Military Affair (RMA), I submit that the basic tenets of the Clausewitzian conception remains relevant to modern warfare. Nor will this require the addition of technology as a fourth component in the Clausewitzian trinity, as Handel has argued.[4]

Technology advances will not alter Clausewitz’s framework because they do not affect war’s logic, only its form. Clausewitz saw war as multi-dimensional and chameleon-like, composed of subjective and objective natures. The former consisted of war’s means, which varied according to time and place. The latter comprised the elements of violence, uncertainty, chance, and friction. While embodying numerous varieties and intensities, they remain essentially a constant part of war regardless of time and place.[5]

Moreover, because war is not an autonomous activity but a social and human event, it possessed two tendencies, escalation and reciprocation, which, without the moderating influence of policy and the debilitating force of friction, tended to push war fighting towards a violent extreme.[6]

This does not mean that warfare has not changed since the days of Clausewitz. What it means is that these changes can be suitably represented by the three elements of Clausewitz’s trinity without altering their basic relationship within it. For example, advances in military technology fall within the military corner of the trinity, while technological advances in other fields may apply to all three elements of the trinity. One powerful example is in the field of communications. Improvements in communications technology not only enhances military command and control, it also brought home the impact of media, shaping the perceptions of political leaders and making it no longer possible for most governments in the world to keep the war progress from their people. Over time, as the horrors of war hit home, social norms changed resulting in a general aversion towards war especially in wealthier Western societies. Even the advent of nuclear weaponry has not sounded the death knell for Clasuewitz’s ideas. The evolution of US nuclear strategy from “massive retaliation” in the 1950s to “flexible response” in the early 1960s, for example, reveals how Politik continued to influence war even in a nuclear environment. A succession of US policy makers during the Cold War decided that because of its attendant risks, nuclear war did not suit US political objectives; hence, other more conventional forms of war received greater attention while nuclear weaponry assumed a deterrence role. Policy and politics clearly conspired to force the avoidance of nuclear war.[7]

The emergence of transnational, non-state actors fighting limited wars can similarly be subsumed within Clausewitz’s trinity framework. All terrorist groups have constituents that they claim to represent. And just like the military that belongs to a state, they possess some offensive capabilities to wrought destruction. In fact, advances in weapon technologies is the single most important factor why non-state groups wage limited war far more effectively than in the past, as even the low-technology weapons today can inflict significant casualties and cause massive destruction. As a result, the days that states can monopolize the use of force or all the levers of control are firmly behind us. Finally, all terrorist groups are led by leaders who are engaged in the perpetuation of violence not for its own sake, but rather as a means to achieve specific political ends.

Having briefly described the nature of modern warfare and showed that the Clausewitzian definition and conception of warfare is still relevant today, I now proceed to examine the relationship between strategy and the outcome of war. From the discussion of Clausewitz’s ideas, it is clear that success or defeat in war cannot simply be viewed in military terms at the operational level. This is not to say that the militarily weaker power cannot achieve battlefield success against a superior force. After all, history provides examples of how weaker military forces have been able to overcome the odds through better tactics and a greater desire to fight. But as a contest of will and in the application of military capabilities, it is generally much easier for the militarily superior force to make its physical and material advantages count in any one battle. Victory is assured if the adversary is defeated on the battlefield or if it chooses to withdraw and not fight. The situation is not so simple in the overall context of a war. Victory in war is about attaining some pre-determined strategic objectives that involve forcing the other side to make certain political concessions for which it was not prepared to make without the war being persecuted. While military successes generally contribute to this outcome, it is only one element within the trinity and therefore this is not always the case. Unlike a specific battle, it is much more difficult to impose one’s will on the enemy and cause him to capitulate to one’s political demands. As long as the weaker side maintains its will and carry on fighting to some degree of effectiveness, there is no certainty of eventual victory. Battlefield success is irrelevant if it does not lead to the fulfillment of most if not all the political objectives for entering the war in the first instance. In this respect, defeat in war should always be viewed as the failure of the overarching strategy to attain those political ends.

(1st Lt. Agus Yudhoyono – Singapore, 2006)

[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War.  Michael Howard and Peter Paret edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984, p. 74.

[2] Antulio J. Echevarria II, War and Politics, The Revolution in Military Affairs and the Continued Relevance of Clausewitz, Joint Forces Quarterly, Winter 1995-96, p. 31.

[3] On War, p. 89.

[4] Michael Handel, “Clausewitz in the Age of Technology,” in Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, ed. Michael Handel (Totowa, NJ: Frank Cass, 1986), 58-62.

[5] Echevarria II, War and Politics, p. 38.

[6] Ibid., p. 39.

[7] Ibid., p. 41.

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